Upper Valley mentoring programs trying to attract more volunteers

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-04-2023 10:50 AM

CLAREMONT — Johnathan Stuart and Joe Paduda walked up the trail at Moody Park, intent on reaching the summit, last month.

The two have known each other since last fall, when they were paired through Windsor County Mentors. Nearly every week, they spend time together doing activities such as snowshoeing and ping pong. (But not bowling, they both emphasized. They don’t like bowling).

“I like beating him at chess,” Johnathan said during the Claremont hike.

“But he’s only ahead of me one game,” Paduda replied, setting off a friendly exchange about who is better at the game.

“He has a horrible memory,” Johnathan declared after they moved on to discussing who is better at ping pong before returning to their discussion about chess.

“He has horrible people skills, but we’re working on that,” Paduda joked back.

The banter between 12-year-old Johnathan and 64-year-old Paduda, of Plainfield, gives a sense of the genuine affection between the two. During their walk, Johnathan caught up Paduda on his recent lacrosse practices at Claremont Middle School. They stopped to greet dogs and look at trees, with Paduda gently quizzing Johnathan on their identification.

In the Upper Valley, mentoring relationships like the one Paduda and Johnathan share — while vital for children — are not as common as they once were. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, mentoring pairs are down 25% in Windsor County Mentor’s area, which now includes Sullivan County. Executive Director Matthew Garcia counts the nonprofit lucky: In Vermont, most mentoring groups have reported a 35% decrease.

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“We don’t really know why that is,” Garcia said. “We know kids need this even more.”

In March 2020, there were 2,000 active youth-adult mentoring pairs throughout Vermont’s 35 mentoring programs, according to data provided by Chad Butt, executive director of Mentor Vermont, a nonprofit organization that supports mentoring programs throughout the state. By May 2022, the number dropped to 1,300. Half of the state’s programs now have waiting lists.

“Overall, waitlists of youth asking for mentors have increased while mentor recruitment is more difficult than ever before,” Butt wrote in an email. “Program staff has likened new mentor recruitment efforts to ‘moving through molasses’ and feeling that they are putting in ‘double the effort for half of the usual results.’ ”

Recruitment challenges stymie expansion efforts

Each year, most mentor programs see a turnover rate of 10% to 20%, mostly due to kids aging out of mentoring, participants moving away and other life changes. Program staff keep up with the turnover by consta ntly reaching out to new volunteers.

“COVID sort of meant there wasn’t much recruitment going on for two years,” Butt said during a phone interview last month.

Part of the challenge is also the time it takes to get a volunteer mentor ready to be paired with a child.

“The task of recruiting, screening, training, onboarding, and matching a new mentor is incredibly time-intensive, especially when approached with the necessary detail and dedication required of industry best practice,” Butt wrote in an email. “Vermont program coordinators estimate this process can take up to 15-25 hours per new mentor.”

Children’s needs have also grown of late: More are coping with mental health challenges, including anxiety. Mentor Vermont and other organizations are working on providing more training — including online trainings they can do when it best fits their schedule — to mentors so that they can better assist their younger charges.

“It’s taking more to support an existing match than it did before, pre-pandemic,” Butt said.

Around a year ago, Windsor County Mentors expanded to Sullivan County. The organization starts accepting children at age five, although the majority who join the program start between the ages of 8 and 10, and continue until they age out of the program at 18. Those who work with youth in Claremont were interested in starting a mentoring program and thought that working with an already established group would be better than trying to start a program from scratch.

“The last thing we want to see is a mentoring program start, create relationships and not be able to maintain those relationships,” Butt said.

Deryn Smith, community health partnership coordinator at Dartmouth Health Population Health and substance misuse prevention coordinator for the Greater Sullivan County Regional Public Health Network, was one of the proponents. Dartmouth Health contributed a $15,000 grant toward the expansion. Dozens of kids were referred to Windsor County Mentors to be matched in Sullivan County.

Windsor County Mentors was optimistic the program would catch on quickly, but the nonprofit has only been able to match a handful of pairs. While there are plenty of eager participants, it’s been a struggle to recruit volunteers.

“I think we had a lot of interest at first with the different sectors that we work within,” Smith said. “Something that we didn’t account for is how to get adults to sign up to be a mentor. That’s definitely the part that we’ve been noticing is really slower.”

The number one concern that potential mentors across Vermont have is that they worry they won’t have enough time to commit, Butt said. Many organizations ask that mentors meet with their mentees for four hours a month and commit to at least a year.

“We see that once mentors do step up and say they want to, they realize they do have the time. They wanted to go for a hike anyway and now they’re doing it with a youth and they have a much more robust experience,” Butt said. “We’re not talking saviorism here. We’re talking youth having someone to turn for support and guidance, but also just sharing experiences with them and being a consistent part of their life.”

To try to address the recruitment challenge as it seeks to expand into the Kearsarge region, Windsor County Mentors is working with community groups with well-established volunteer bases to see if they’re interested in becoming mentors prior to the program’s fall launch.

“We’re trying to line up the groundwork more carefully this time,” Garcia said.

Recruitment challenges can go both ways. In Windsor County, educators are referring fewer students to the mentoring program, Garcia said, attributing the reason to the fact that the pandemic — and recovery from it — has created more work for educators so they are often focused on things other than mentoring programs. That’s left the nonprofit organization in an unusual predicament: They have mentors waiting to be paired with children.

“If you’re a mentor in Woodstock we’re not going to match you with a kid in Springfield,” Garcia said. They also try to match pairs with similar interests.

For the adults who choose to become mentors, it can be quite fulfilling. Paduda, the father of three children, chose to become a mentor because he was looking for a way to give back to the community. He works as a health care consultant and has a flexible work schedule, which allows him to devote time to mentoring.

“It’s actually been really easy from the first time we met,” Paduda said about Johnathan. Reading, birds and the outdoors are among their common interests.

In the pavilion at the summit, Johnathan began climbing around and teased Paduda that if he fell, it would be Paduda’s fault.

“We’ve had this conversation. Young men take responsibility for their own actions, whether they’re smart or dumb,” Paduda replied. “So you get credit for good stuff, you get to own your dumb stuff.”

One of the reasons Johnathan wanted to have a mentor is because his dad lives in Oklahoma and he doesn’t see him that much.

“I kind of wanted a father figure,” Johnathan said. He appreciates Paduda’s humor and said it’s nice to have an adult who’s not a family member to spend time with. “He’s really awesome.”

Growing needs

The benefits of mentoring programs are plentiful. Youth who have adult mentors, Smith said, are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, including drug use, and more likely to engage in extracurricular activities.

“Overall I think that youth having the ability to have a reliable adult that they can trust, it provides them an outlet to talk about what’s going on in their life,” Smith, of Dartmouth Health, said.

Johnathan, his brother and his mother moved to the Upper Valley from Tennessee in 2019 and the boys’ first years in school were spent coping with restrictions placed by the pandemic. As soon as Johnathan’s mother, Kellie Stuart, heard about the program, she completed applications for him and his younger brother, Travis. Then, they waited for almost a year for a match.

“Joe was just fantastic. He’s a great match,” said Stuart, a kindergarten teacher at Cornish Elementary School. Like her son, Stuart noted that the boys’ dad lives far away, which makes it difficult for them to see him. “That’s just been important, to have a male figure in his life.”

While there are other mentor-like programs in the area, Stuart was looking for something that involved one-on-one relationships. Johnathan also helps mentor younger children through a karate program.

“Trying to bring out some leadership qualities, trying to make sure he sees (...) many good examples of what growing up to be a man in America looks like,” Stuart said of why she wanted Johnathan to participate.

School-based programs

Not all mentoring has to take place in a one-on-one setting. Last fall, the White River Valley Supervisory Union received a $250,000 grant through Vermont’s Community Schools Act to start after-school clubs at White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, said Mary Schell, community school coordinator at White River Valley Middle School.

Each month, there are new clubs for students to choose from. Each club meets from 3 to 4:30 p.m., once a week and there are around three each day, Monday to Thursday. Around 23% of middle school students participate in clubs — many choosing to take more than one. Many of the clubs are lead by teachers, with about two or three community members, including those who also teach at Bethel University, a nonprofit organization where residents share their skills with others. Club advisers are paid $25 per hour.

“Oftentimes it’s an opportunity for advisers to engage with kids on what they love to do,” Schell said. “Most of the time we’ve got pretty high participation in terms of kids signing up and showing up.”

Among the clubs sixth-grader Evelyn Reilly has joined are art, cooking, Magic the Gathering and drama. One of her shining moments was in cooking club, where she learned how to make beef burritos along with rice and beans.

“Then they sent us home with our own package,” Evelyn said. “We got to make our burritos at home. It was so much fun.”

Some clubs, such as cooking, are so popular they come back month after month. Evelyn, like other students, is also able to suggest clubs: Alongside an adviser, she lead a reading club for students. Among the student-suggested clubs have been sewing, bass fishing and volleyball, which community member C.J. Bridge helped lead in March.

“We definitely try to teach the kids and they do learn and they do develop, but it’s more of a ‘let’s just have fun,’ ” Bridge said. During the club’s last session, they played volleyball using a giant beach ball. Next month, Bridge will lead a whiffle ball club.

“It’s been amazing,” Bridge said of the experience. “Everyone is really family-oriented. It’s just a big family every time you walk in.”

The district also has a mentoring program called DREAM (Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure, and Mentoring) Guided Mentoring, program used in schools across Vermont, which pairs high school students with elementary school students. This year, there are six pairs participating in a group led by teacher adviser Trinity DeSimone. DREAM builds on previous programs in South Royalton where high school students frequently mentored elementary school students.

“The current third-grade class was hit especially hard by the pandemic,” DeSimone wrote in an email. “They were in kindergarten when COVID shut school down in 2019 and have since experienced persistent uncertainty and change. For the greater part of two years, their peer interactions were limited, making their ability to create and maintain positive connections more challenging than ever.”

Sometimes, the students meet one-on-one and other times they meet as a group. They’ve built forts out of sticks, branches and snow. They’ve gathered in White River Valley High School’s chemistry lab to make slime and participated in scavenger hunts, among other activities.

“Overall, the hope is to build strong foundational and reciprocal relationships over a two-year period between the high school mentors and their elementary mentees, that will pay dividends for years to come,” DeSimone said. “I hope that these same students will be interested in mentoring when they get to high school.”

Editor’s note: Visit wcmentors.org to learn more about becoming a volunteer mentor through Windsor County Mentors. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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